Sustainability the word alone is enough to send me to sleep noted Hans-Peter Dürr, winner of the alternative Nobel Prize, at a conference for the IPPNW (Internationale Ärzte für die Verhütung des Atomkriegs/International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War) in Berlin. He makes an allusion here to the German translation of a term Nachhaltigkeit, which in English expresses more clearly its dynamic meaning: sustainability ability to sustain the ability to survive. In German also recognised as Zukunftsfähigkeit, this word, which at first seems quite nondescript encompasses all the most important discussions, conflicts and hopes of our society or perhaps even of the whole world
The meaning of the much-quoted definition of the Bruntland Commission 1987 has become fundamental today: Sustainable development is development which satisfies the needs of the present, without running the risk that future generations will not be able to satisfy their own needs. Two key elements of sustainability have since become apparent: on the one hand the awareness of the relationship between economic, social and environmental dimensions of development and on the other hand the element of generational justice.
More to be rather than to have: Sustainable development surrounds us with a simple but at the same time socially rich lifestyle, which will not burden future generations and will not be at the expense of the poor in developing countries (Prof. Dr. Josef Sayer) Does this lifestyle have a chance amongst the Europeans?
The Spirit of Rio can this vision inspire once more?
In 1992 the principle of sustainable development featured on the political agenda of the international community: the world summit of the United Nations drew up Agenda 21 and Rio-Explanation in Rio de Janeiro. During their time in Rio the EUI and other signatories committed themselves to the working out of strategies for a sustainable development until the World Summit conference + 10 in Johannesburg. (World Summit on Sustainable Development)
EU efforts to follow these commitments entered into within the realms of the UN can be seen in a variety of documents more or less binding and more or less implemented. Article 2 of the EU treaty sets down sustainable development as a core responsibility of the European community: It is the responsibility of the communityto promote an economic life which is harmonious, balanced and whose development is sustainable.
The European Unions strategy for sustainable development has been in existence since the European Councils conference in Göteborg 2001. The large number of positive developments in Europe could make Europeans blind to certain potential threats The commission wanted to combat this danger with their strategy. According to the statement in the Commissions paper: Not everyone has the means to take part in these new economic opportunities and they run the risk of being left behind. There is also a growing awareness that we are putting increasing pressure on our planets ability to carry ecological burdens. The worrying trends mentioned here are widely recognised by now pictures and headlines of fowl plague, BSE and floods immediately spring to mind less well known however, is that every sixth European lives in poverty.
This is to be combated with a three-section strategy, which not only includes general suggestions, but also specific measures (for example improvements to the transport system and the way natural resources are used or an increased use of renewable energy sources) as well as a strategy for implementation and review.
Growth or sustainability, that is the question
The Round Table for sustainable development presented the latest development (January 2003) This is a committee comprising of 13 experts, which is to present a report to the Commission before Autumn 2003 on how ecologically sound economic trade in Europe will be in the future. This type of analysis and suggestions for action are not offered by the current panel of experts. However, as a result of their findings, sustainable development will be firmly placed in the preamble as well as article 37 of the Basic Rights Charta in the proposed treaty.
At its sitting in February 2003 the European Economic and Social Committee (EWSA) criticised the very slow ongoing implementation of the EU strategy for a sustainable development. Furthermore there is the question as to whether the aims of economic growth (e.g the Lisbon Strategy) should be brought into line with the principle of sustainability and protection of resources. Whether this contrast will be discussed and dealt with further at EU level or whether the progressive strategy only played a role for the international presentation in Johannesburg, only time will tell.
It is difficult to make a general judgment on the various programmes and campaigns which deal with the ability to sustain in the future. However it still cannot be said that sustainable development is one of the EUs recognisable main aims. As always reporting on economic co-operation is still not the only priority.
If the EU doesnt only want to be an economic community but also a community with values,
if the joint aims and visions emphasized in the many speeches are reality ,
if there is a certain consensus as to the meaning of progress and how societies should develop in future generations, then the strategy for sustainability must not remain simply theory. And it must go beyond the, in many places only curtailed ecological dimension.
Think globally, act in Europe
Of course its not enough to simply realise thoughts of sustainability at a European level and only have Europe as the model. Here too the oft-quoted motto from Agenda 21 Think globally, act locally should be put in more concrete terms in the phrase Think European, act nationally, regionally and in the community. But it is at national level where politics often take the form of quick fixes. Long-term and initially costly solutions are often not compatible with voters short-term priorities and are therefore not in the (power) interests of politicians. Nevertheless above all the trend-oriented among them are not afraid of embellishing themselves and their party agendas with concepts of sustainability - and in doing so remove all credibility from this term.
Therefore the European constituent seems even more important here.
Is there really a better opportunity to realise this partly idealistic concept at EU level?
Is it justified if the EU adopts such a strategy without a great amount of fuss and perhaps, in this way can implement higher demands, but the public is barely aware of this?
Is it even desirable that later, national governments would be able to pass on responsibility to the EU, if more effective solutions could be found and implemented in this way?
EU policies based on committees of experts, often making them inscrutable, can have their advantages - however, at the point of implementation, at the latest, there must be an extensive information policy; this is as relevant here as in many EU political areas.
In order to implement a strategy such as the one discussed here a close relationship with the people must play a central role. Through information campaigns citizens must be aware of the associated advantages, even if they are difficult to measure. Citizens and businesses must be motivated to develop a sustainable lifestyle and their fears and reservations must be met with convincing arguments (e.g. the creation of a new promising labour market for renewable energy sources). This motivation could evolve through a Europe-wide vision that changing consumption habits and also giving up some products is worthwhile as a common aim. The success of small sustainable projects e.g. Agenda 21 local groups ought to be made known across Europe through the media, beyond insider circles. This could lead to a re-inforcement of ideas (and wishes) already present in many places and to a variety of small alternative projects.
A coalition of those supporting sustainability
In the current world political situation questions about security are of more significance than thoughts set down here. If however, those who supported and demonstrated for a peaceful solution in Iraq could be inspired by the thought of sustainable development (and would adopt sustainability as their way of life); if they would recognise that a sustainable society offers the basis for peace, then that could provide a decisive contribution to the prevention of future wars.
Many small and large active groups and critical NGOs are a clear indication that the evolution of such a movement must not remain an illusion. The idealistic aim should therefore not be given up, as, in the words of Dürr already pessimistic thoughts are destroying hope for a better future.